It had begun to feel as though Pep Guardiola was falling out of fashion. The smart money has been flocking to Chelsea in the Premier League stakes these past few weeks and their boss, Thomas Tuchel, has become everyone’s new darling.
Top of the table going into this game, Tuchel and his team were already being anointed champions in some quarters.Tuchel, after all, had outsmarted Guardiola in the Champions League Final in Porto last May when the Manchester City boss was said, once again, to have over-complicated things.
It was the third time in succession Tuchel’s Chelsea had beaten Guardiola’s City. When Tuchel was asked last week whether he was a better coach than his rival, he was coy in his response.But at Stamford Bridge, Guardiola got his mojo back. And got his own back.
At the start of a run of away games that will continue with them playing in Paris against PSG this week and at Anfield against Liverpool next weekend, City were outstanding in their demolition of Chelsea.
They were relentless, they were hungry, they were brilliant and they were beautiful.And so it was fitting that the end of a match which ought to re-establish City as the favourites to retain their title, Guardiola was showered with accolades.
Primary among them was that the win made him the most successful manager in City’s long and celebrated history, taking him above legendary City boss Les McDowall with his 221st victory at the clubMcDowall was City manager for 592 games between 1950 and 1963 and this was only Guardiola’s 303rd game in charge.
He has already, of course, won more trophies than any other manager in the club’s history and the manner of City’s victory in west London held out the hope that there will be many more to come. And soon.
This was a dominating, smothering, brave, skilful performance by City, who had been confronted at the start of the game by a dark blue wall of N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in the Chelsea midfield that seemed designed to stop even a team as creative as City from penetrating it. Tuchel’s ploy simply didn’t work. City were too good. Way too good.
It is early in the season yet but the fact that this victory knocked Chelsea off the top of the table and lifted City above them felt symbolic. This was a statement win by a team that has faced questions about whether, in the light of the failure to buy a centre forward in the summer, it is properly equipped to compete with its main rivals.
If Chelsea’s selection had been designed to thwart City going forward, it was City who refused to give their opponents a chance to play. Romelu Lukaku was rarely in the game, starved of service. Chelsea sorely lacked creativity of their own.
Their defeat was a reality check in their hopes of stealing City’s crown away from them this season.A quarter of an hour had gone before Chelsea finally broke free of City’s shackles for the first time.
They hoofed the ball out of defence, but it fell kindly to Lukaku near the halfway line and he laid it off to Marcos Alonso. Alonso picked out the run of Timo Werner down the left and when he crossed the ball, Lukaku swivelled and tried to shoot but it squirmed away from him.
City dominated possession. Chelsea were patient and brave trying to beat their opponent’s press but they rarely achieved it. When they did, they broke with intent and purpose and Werner looked particularly sharp and filled with new confidence, but those moments were few and far between and City were equal to them.
And so we were left with half chances and fleeting moments of possibility and flashes of excitement. A few of them came in a flurry just before half-time. A Rodri shot glanced off the top of Antonio Rudiger’s head and flew over the bar.
A chipped cross from Phil Foden was chested down by Gabriel Jesus ten yards out, but he blazed his shot wildly over the bar. Edouard Mendy rushed a punch to clear a corner but it fell harmlessly wide.
A long shot from Kevin De Bruyne sped high and handsome into the Matthew Harding Stand.Some of the best entertainment came on the touchline, where both Tuchel and Guardiola looked as if they were going through the agonies of the damned.
Guardiola thumped his right fist into the palm of his left hand and sank into his seat in resignation when Jesus lifted that left-foot shot over.Tuchel was even more animated.
He behaved as if he were undergoing some devilish psychological torture, imploring his players to do his bidding, sinking into the depths of despair when they did not, turning to his assistants on the bench and gesticulating at them, as if he could not believe what was unfolding in front of him.
Grealish, whose influence had been limited by some excellent defending by Cesar Azpilicueta, in particular, curled a shot wide just after the break.
And as City resumed their first half domination, so the Chelsea faithful roared their players on whenever there was even the merest glimpse of an attack. But their encouragement was in vain.
Seven minutes after the interval, City worked a short corner from the left and when it reached Rodri 25 yards out, he slammed a shot goalwards.
It went into a group of players massed in the area and Jesus controlled it and turned beautifully. His right foot shot hit the bottom of Jorginho’s outstretched boot and bounced into the ground.
The deflection rooted Mendy to the spot and the ball found the bottom corner of the net.City nearly went further ahead five minutes later.
Grealish, who was growing in confidence, finally found some space in the area and jinked round Azpilicueta. His slide-rule shot was destined for the bottom corner until Mendy reached out and made a brilliant diving finger-tip save with his left hand that diverted it round the post.
The game had sprung to life. Tuchel brought Kai Havertz on for Kante and it opened up even more. Grealish was at the centre of everything now. His cross from the left was pushed out by Mendy but it fell to Jesus and his shot was heading for goal until it was hacked off the line by Thiago Silva, a first half substitute for Reece James.Lukaku had a goal disallowed for offside but that was a rare break in City’s relentlessness.
Chelsea seemed to missing the under-appreciated guile and energy that the injured Mason Mount brings them and in particular, his ability to slip between the lines.
It was Mount, don’t forget, who had provided the defence splitting pass for Chelsea’s winner in Porto.City nearly wrapped things up 12 minutes from time when De Bruyne curled a flat free kick deep into the Chelsea area.
Aymeric Laporte made a late run and stretched to meet it at the back post but it was just too far in front of him for him to be able to direct his effort properly and it flew wide.City had another golden chance to put the game out of reach a few minutes later.
Chelsea lost the ball deep in their own half and Phil Foden was on it in a flash. He played a perfect through ball to Grealish but when the £100m man tried to flick it past Mendy with the outside of his right foot, Mendy blocked it with his body and the danger was cleared.
City, though, saw out the remaining minutes with relative ease. Guardiola’s record was safe. He was the main man once again.